Warren Winiarski was born in Chicago in 1928 and grew up in its close-knit Polish community. As a hobby, Winiarski’s father made mead, dandelion wine, and fruit-flavored wines for family holidays and ceremonial events. As a small boy, Winiarski would press his ear against the barrels of homemade wine and listen to the mysterious sounds of fermentation.
In Polish, Winiarski means “from wine" or "from a winemaker,” but Winiarski didn’t grow up planning to be a winemaker. His interest in the humanities led him to attend St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland, where he met his future wife, Barbara, a painter. After graduation, he enrolled as a graduate student in political science at the University of Chicago. That, in turn, led to more than a year abroad in Italy while he researched Machiavelli and other Italian Renaissance political theorists. While in Italy, he learned to enjoy wine as a daily accompaniment to meals rather than a special-occasion-only beverage.
Winiarski returned to Chicago and became a Lecturer in the Liberal Arts at the University of Chicago while completing his master’s degree and working toward a doctorate. While his interest in wine continued, a turning point came when a visiting friend brought the Winiarskis a bottle of wine from an East Coast winery. At that luncheon, Winiarski had an epiphany—not because the wine was the best he had ever tasted, but because it seemed to reveal to him the special character of all wine, especially wine from the New World. He became preoccupied with the idea of making wine, reading everything he could find and seeking out knowledgeable mentors. He and Barbara had already been considering a different kind of life for themselves and their young children, one in a rural setting where they could work together as a family.
The beginnings of the fine winegrowing renaissance in Napa Valley drew Winiarski’s attention, and in 1964, the Winiarski family drove to the Valley to begin their new life. Winiarski convinced Lee Stewart to take him on as an apprentice at Stewart’s Souverain Cellars in the Napa Valley. As the second man in a two-man operation, Winiarski spent his days working over wine vats and his nights poring over books about winemaking.
The following year, he and Barbara bought a three-acre plot of land on Howell Mountain and began planting. They were the first to plant Cabernet Sauvignon at that high elevation on the mountain, an area later to become famous for its Cabernets.
In 1966, Robert Mondavi began building the first brand-new winery the Napa Valley had seen since Prohibition. Winiarski joined Mondavi as assistant winemaker, the first hired winemaker at Robert Mondavi Winery, for the next two years. By 1968, his growing confidence led him to begin the search for new land where he could establish his own vineyard and winery.
By this time, Winiarski had become more familiar with the wines of France, and he found in the great French Bordeaux inspiration for what he hoped to achieve in California. His goal was to produce wines with the classical structure and elegance of French first growths, but exhibiting the regional character of California. The wines he envisioned were supple and elegant rather than extractive and tannic, displaying both structure and sufficient softness to be enjoyable at early ages. Winiarski called this style “the iron fist in the velvet glove,” and it guided his search for vineyard land.
He began methodically tasting grapes and unblended wine from all over the Napa Valley, looking for the terroir that could produce the Cabernet fruit of this quality. In 1969, he visited Nathan Fay’s vineyard on the Valley’s eastern side, below the rocky promontory known as the Stag's Leap Palisade, and sampled Fay’s 1968 homemade Cabernet Sauvignon. “The minute I tasted it, I knew,” Winiarski said later, “this was the kind of Cabernet I wished to produce.” Fay’s vineyard was not for sale, but the prune ranch next door was. The following year the Winiarskis sold their Howell Mountain land and, with a group of partners, purchased the ranch. The Winiarskis planted Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot and named their new land Stag’s Leap Vineyard, known today as S.L.V. In 1972, the family and a group of partners—some new, some from the vineyard partnership—bought a second parcel nearby as a winery site and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars opened its doors in 1973.
Winiarski continued to develop his exacting approach to winemaking, in the vineyard and in the cellar, with a methodology that judiciously blends scientific practice and artistic expression. In part due to his own scholarly background, he has been a vigorous supporter of research into subjects ranging from his own vineyards’ geology to the genetics of primordial Vitis types from Pakistan and elsewhere.
Fame came quickly as his first commercial vintage of Cabernet Sauvignon took first place in the 1976 Judgment of Paris. A bottle of that award-winning 1973 S.L.V. Cabernet Sauvignon is now on display at The Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History in Washington D.C. It was chosen from among 137 million artifacts, works of art, and specimens in the collection for its historic importance in creating awareness and recognition of the quality of Napa Valley California wine. The bottle was included in the Institution’s book History of America in 101 Objects and appeared in an article about the book in the November 2013 issue of Smithsonian magazine.
Winiarski has been a crusader for wine quality, appearing frequently in symposia around the world and publishing articles in many wine journals. In 2001, he served as President of the London-based International Wine & Spirit Competition, whose Cabernet Sauvignon trophy he has sponsored since 1986. In addition, he has encouraged the development of new, more sophisticated methods of wine scoring in California.
Preservation and philanthropy have been important to Winiarski and his family for over 50 years. During the Winiarskis early years in the Napa Valley, they were among those advocating for the then-radical notion of creating an Agricultural Preserve to protect the Valley from the suburban sprawl that was fast eliminating farmland in most other Northern California counties. The Agricultural Preserve became Napa County law in 1968. Winiarski continued to advocate politically for preserving the Valley’s rural beauty, backing Measure J in 1990, its extension Measure P in 2008, Measure I in 2006, Measure Z in 2017, and Measure C in 2018. Since 1990, the Winiarskis have donated nearly 200 acres to the Land Trust of Napa County, which protects the land from development in perpetuity, including the Paris Tasting vineyard and his current property, Arcadia Vineyards.
Winiarski sold Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars in 2007 but continues to grow grapes at his Arcadia Vineyards, which he purchased in 1996 and named “Arcadia” for its bucolic setting. The 85 acres are located in the Coombsville AVA in southeast Napa Valley where they produce classic Burgundian-style Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes for Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars.
In continuation of Winiarski’s mission to maintain wine as part of American culture he has made a gift to build the most comprehensive collection of wine writers works and papers in the world at the University of California Davis, Peter J. Shields Library. With this gift, the library will identify those who influenced both the wine industry and public appreciation of wine for a global audience.
Since 1994, Winiarski has shared his love of literature and the classics at his alma mater with participants from around the world, by leading courses in the St. John’s College Summer Classics program. The Summer Classics program hosts participants for week-long seminars in the great works of literature, science, history, philosophy, and opera at the Santa Fe campus of St. John’s College.
Winiarski oversees the Winiarski Family Foundation and, as part of the history of California winemaking, communicates his philosophy in speaking engagements and his writing.
In 2017, Winiarski was inducted into the California Hall of Fame for his global efforts to showcase and preserve the quality and history of California wine by Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr.
The Smithsonian Institution, through its National Museum of American History, awarded Winiarski the James Smithson Bicentennial Medal on November 21, 2019. The honor was in recognition of his contributions to American winemaking and for helping to establish and for his continued support of the museum’s American Food and Wine History Project. Winiarski is the 71st recipient of the medal since 1990 and the first winemaker honored. The medal also recognizes his dedication to the American values of entrepreneurship, innovation, and freedom.
Professional Boards and Associations
2004– 2020 - If Given a Chance Foundation Former Board Member, Napa
If Given a Chance is a community service organization providing post high school educational opportunities to youth who have overcome extraordinary challenging backgrounds.
1994– Present - St. John’s College, Tutor, Summer Classics Program
St. John’s distinctive liberal arts curriculum and educational practices have long given it a highly respected place among American colleges and universities. Its strong commitment to collaborative inquiry and to the study of original texts makes St. John’s College a particularly vibrant community of learning. Through close engagement with the works of some of the world’s greatest writers and thinkers—from Homer, Plato, Euclid, Nietzsche and Einstein—students at St. John’s College grapple with fundamental questions that confront us as humans.
1986–Present - Knights of the Vine, Supreme Knight
The Brotherhood of the Knights of the Vine includes professionals in all phases of the wine industry and individuals who appreciate wine and wish to learn more about this wonderful beverage. The Brotherhood offers unique wine programs that are both educational and social for its members, professionals, or just lovers of wine.
1984–Present - International Wine & Food Society, Lifetime Member
The International Wine and Food Society is an independent gastronomic society with more than 6,000 members across 30 countries.
1983–2013 - International Wine & Spirit Competition London (President, Member of the VP Advisory Board, Sponsor, and Judge)
The IWSC Competition is proud to set the international benchmark for quality, remaining unique in the crowded world of drinks competitions with dedicated tasting premises, a permanent onsite cellar and over 400 global experts judging products for seven months of the year. Other presidents include Baroness Philippine de Rothschild, Robert Mondavi, Paul Symington, and Wolf Blass.
2001–2015 - Statue of Liberty Ellis Island Foundation, Board Director, and Chairman of Heritage Award Committee
The mission of the Foundation is to restore and preserve the Statue of Liberty National Monument, which includes, in addition to the Statue itself, Ellis Island and its Museum of Immigration; custody and control of records, relics and other things of historic interest related to the Statue of Liberty and the millions of immigrants who entered the United States via Ellis Island. The Foundation also fosters, promotes and stimulates public knowledge of and interest in the history of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. Winiarski is the only Board Member Emeritus of the Foundation.
1989–2009 - St. John’s College Board of Directors
Emeritus Member, Warren Winiarski, Class of 1952.
1986–1989 - Chairman of the Napa Valley Vintners Association Committee for Sub-Appellations
Succeeded in enacting California State Legislation (State Senate Bill No. 771) to modify the Agricultural Viticulture Areas system in California which made conjunctive labeling required in Napa for its included sub-appellations, a goal achieved in 1989.
1982–2007 - Napa Valley Vintners Association - Board Member
The Napa Valley Vintners nonprofit trade association has been cultivating excellence since 1944 by inspiring its more than 525 members to consistently produce wines of the highest quality, to provide environmental leadership, and to care for the extraordinary place they call home.